Male vs Female Northern Cardinal: What are the Differences?

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: July 20, 2022
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The northern cardinal is one of many cardinal species found in North and South America. As you probably guessed, they are called Northern cardinals because they have the farthest Northern range of all cardinal species.  Like many other birds and animals generally, there are male and female Northern cardinals. However, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Not to worry though, this article promises an explicit comparison of both northern cardinal sexes across different aspects. Let’s roll. 

Comparing Male and Female Northern Cardinal

Male and female northern cardinals have some differences in their size, appearance as well as behaviors.
Male Northern CardinalFemale Northern Cardinal
SizeLength: 8.7-9.25 inches
Weight: 1.5-1.7 ounces
Length: 8.2-8.5 inches
Weight: 1.4-1.5 ounces
Appearance Brilliant black face, red and black throat, red plumage, red wings, red tail, and red crestGrey face, pale brown plumage, yellow-brown throat, pale red wings, and slightly red+grey crest. 
Diet Omnivorous; fruits, seeds, nuts, and insectsOmnivorous; fruits, seeds, nuts, and insects  
Nest contributions Collects building materials and gives to the female for buildingBuilds the nest with help from the male and incubates the eggs
Singing pattern Loud and bellicoseRare and intentional 
Lifespan 3 years in the wild3 years in the wild

Key Differences Between Male and Female Northern Cardinals 

Male and female northern cardinals have some differences in their size, appearance as well as behaviors, and these differences, especially the size and physical differences, can help us tell them apart. Let’s take a more in-depth look. 

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinal: Size

northern cardinal in snowy flight

Male northern cardinals measure about 8.7-9.25 inches in length.

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©iStock.com/Lynnae_Lowe

Male and female northern cardinals actually have a slight difference in size even though they look exactly the same. The male northern cardinal measures about 8.7-9.25 inches in length while also weighing between 1.5-1.7 ounces. The female northern cardinal, on the other hand, has a length of 8.2-8 5 inches and weighs 1.4-1.5 ounces. These figures show that on average, the male northern cardinal is larger than the female. 

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinal: Appearance

Male and female Northern Cardinals

Male northern cardinals are predominantly red.

©Bonnie Taylor Barry/Shutterstock.com

The male northern cardinal has a black face, red plumage, red wings, red tail, red crest, and a red and black throat. Basically, male northern cardinals are predominantly red and that’s the first thing most people would notice about them. 

Female northern cardinals, on the other hand, have a pale grey face, gentle red crests, pale brown plumage, yellow-brown throat, and pale-red wings. In other words, they are not nearly as red as their male counterparts and their predominantly pale brown or grey color is a simple hack to tell them apart. 

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinal: Diet

As one would expect, male and female northern cardinals are omnivores. They have the same diet comprising fruits, seeds, nuts, and insects. As a matter of fact, males are often in charge of collecting food as the females would often sing out to them gently when they are starving.

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinals: Nest Contributions 

We mentioned earlier that female northern cardinals often sing out to their male counterparts when they are hungry. In the same vein, females are in charge of building nests while males would go out and look for nesting materials. Nest building takes about 2-3 weeks depending on the availability of nesting materials. 

Females would also incubate their eggs in the nests until they have hatched. Talk about division of labor. 

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinals: Incubation

northern cardinal pair on tree branch

Female northern cardinals produce eggs and incubate them in their nest, while males supply food and make sure the females are well fed.

©Cathy Keifer/Shutterstock.com

As is the case with most animals, male and female northern cardinals often get together and mate. After mating, the females produce eggs which they will spend time incubating in their nest. Incubation often lasts for 11-13 days. During these periods, the males take on the responsibility of supplying food and making sure the females are well fed. The males would also sometimes take charge of incubation for short periods. Everything about the process screams equality, romance, and reasonably fair division of labor. Wouldn’t you agree?

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinals: Singing Patterns

Male and female northern cardinals exhibit different behaviors through their singing patterns. Males would frequently sing out loud in an aggressive manner and they often do this to preserve and defend their territories. They may also sing as a way of charming females and if they succeed, they would often stay hooked to that particular female for life, barring a divorce. Also, males sing a lot more frequently during breeding seasons.

Female birds, on the other hand, have gentle singing patterns and they do not sing as often as their male counterparts do. When they sing, they are intentional about it and many times, it is their way of telling the males that they are hungry and need food. 

Northern cardinals, irrespective of their sexes, may also sing to warn others of impending predatory threats. Predators include eagles, owls, falcons, snakes, chipmunks, and squirrels.  

We must mention that singing patterns differ among northern cardinal individuals and can be influenced by geolocation. 

Male Vs Female Northern Cardinals: Lifespan

Northern Cardinal in flight

Male and female northern cardinals live for about 3 years when in the wild.

©Rob Palmer Photography/Shutterstock.com

Both male and female northern cardinals live for about 3 years when in the wild. When held captive, they can live beyond 3 years and as long as 28 years. It might interest you to know that male and female northern cardinals who already have mating partners would often remarry after the death of their partners.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Lynnae_Lowe


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